Simon is battling his toughest staff shortage. He’s worried the vaccine mandate will worsen it

It's two hours away from dinner service in Simon Matthews' commercial kitchen, and his team is preparing for another busy night ahead.

Key points:Public-facing workers have until today to get vaccinated or risk losing their jobsSome industry groups expect some key staff will leave their jobsBusinesses say the mandate has been communicated poorly

"It hasn't been unusual in peak season for staff to be doing 60- and 70-hour weeks, which is just clearly unsustainable," the restaurateur said.

Mr Matthews is currently facing what he says is the worst labour shortage since his fine dining restaurant in East Point, Darwin, first opened its doors 20 years ago.

International travel restrictions and broader industry uncertainty amid lockdowns and border closures have slowed the supply of some hospitality staff and driven away some of the sector's veterans.

Now, Mr Matthews expects his small team of about 30 will be stretched even further once a coronavirus vaccine mandate for public-facing workers comes into effect from tomorrow.

Catch up on the main COVID-19 news from November 16 with a look back at our blog

He is preparing to lose about four employees, some of them senior team members.

"They'll be impossible to replace," he said.

"We're losing staff that are just general workers here. Even they are going to be very, very hard to replace."

Restaurateur Simon Matthews sits at a table on his empty restaurant floor, looking out the window.
The Darwin restaurateur says his industry has been provided with an "extreme lack of detail" about the mandate.(ABC News: Jesse Thompson)

Mr Matthews is vaccinated and said he's had "very, very uncomfortable conversations" with some of the outgoing staff about the reasons to get the vaccine.

His frustration about the mandate comes from the fact that the onus may fall to him to stand down or fire some valued team members.

He says an "extreme lack of detail" provided to his industry has not helped.

"I feel business has been made a scapegoat, actually, and is being forced to implement the government's decisions, without any consultation, without any support — and without any regard for the extra burden it's placing on business," he said.

Construction sector slow-down

The government's vaccine mandate was announced as part of its roadmap to living with coronavirus, unveiled in September.

The wide-ranging mandate applies to any employee who interacts with vulnerable people, works in high-risk settings or works on essential supply chains and infrastructure, although Western Australia's workforce mandate is now said to be the toughest in the nation.

Employees could face $5,000 fines if they show up to work without having had at least one dose from Saturday — an imminent deadline that has prompted a surge in vaccine bookings across the week.

For businesses, the penalties are higher.

But confusion about the policy has spread across the several sectors, and industry representatives fear it could worsen staff shortages and slow economic growth.

A man in a busines shirt leans against a table in a tools workshop.
Luis Espinoza is the director of the Housing Industry Association NT. (ABC News: Jesse Thompson)

Construction sector group Master Builders NT recently surveyed its members and found about half of their respondents believed between one and 10 of their employees would be unvaccinated when the mandate came in.

"This result also suggests that employers are anticipating potentially serious workforce issues as we get closer to the trigger date of 12 November," a report about the survey said.

Luis Espinoza from the Housing Industry Association NT, which represents the residential construction sector, says the industry was already overwhelmed with work.

He said the industry was burdened by huge demand as federal government grants saw a number of new industrial estates spring up on the outskirts of Darwin and Palmerston.

A suburb in Darwin which  is undergoing land clearing for additional houses.
Housing estates are springing up in the outer areas of Darwin and Palmerston.(ABC News: Dane Hurst)

His concern is the mandate might worsen the labour shortages the industry is already grappling with.

"This mandate is just going to put extra pressure on an industry that's already suffering from other factors brought about by COVID," he said.

"I get phone calls all the time saying 'What are we going to do? What am I going to do without contractors?'.

"Without the services, you just can't build.

"In the meantime, there are people who are waiting on the dream house to be built and it may be a year or even two before it's started."

It is unknown how many workers are affected by the mandate, but the NT government says 80 per cent of its eligible population is now double vaccinated and industry groups such as Hospitality NT have previously said vaccine refusal was low.

The public service, the largest employer in the NT, has not specifically responded to multiple questions about how much of its workforce was unvaccinated.

A man stands and looks up at a wall of tools in a workshop.
Luis Espinoza says he expects a labour shortage in the residential construction sector to worsen.(ABC News: Jesse Thompson)

Read more about the vaccine rollout:Vaccine bookings boom ahead of NT's vaccine mandateQueensland has hit its first major COVID vaccine milestoneHalf the world has received at least one vaccine dose, but that figure hides a darker truth

Businesses making last-minute changes

Several small business-owners with unvaccinated staff who feel the mandate will deal them another blow are now looking at ways to keep their doors open beyond Saturday.

Marii Oblescuk, who runs a wellness clinic in Cullen Bay, has shifted some of her consultation and retail services online so that staff contact with the public is minimised.

She also intends to regularly test her staff to demonstrate they don't have coronavirus (although this is not a substitute for the vaccine mandate), but she admits the changes may not be sustainable.

A photo of Darwin businesswoman Marii Oblescuk sitting in her wellness centre.
Marii Oblescuk runs a wellness centre in the Darwin suburb of Cullen Bay.(ABC News: Jesse Thompson)

"The problem is: we don't seem to be in any consultation with the government," she said.

"Every business is now pivoting how to change and alter their services to keep the money coming in."

Read more about the spread of COVID-19 in Australia:Australia might be on its coronavirus 'honeymoon'Premier rejects claim that WA will open early for AshesWhich Gold Coast suburbs are lagging behind with COVID vaccinations?

Some are also disappointed with the way the change has been communicated.

Chief Minister Michael Gunner has repeatedly said the mandate was necessary to protect vulnerable populations, but he has also said he was not worried about frontline workers who would lose their jobs.

He has labelled the Country Liberal Party opposition and his Labor stablemate, senator Malarndirri McCarthy, anti-vaxxers for questioning the policy.

"One of the most disappointing aspects of this mandate is the way that people who have had any sort of dissenting voice have been treated — they've been bullied, they've been demeaned," Mr Matthews said.

"From our leadership and government, it's a very poor way of dealing with their constituents."

A man in a grey shirt stands outside his restaurant, leaning on a bannister rail.
Mr Matthews is preparing to farewell several valued staff.(ABC News: Jesse Thompson)

Small Business Minister Paul Kirby on Thursday insisted government departments and health officials had regularly met with businesses, provided information and left the door open to further consultation.

"Individual businesses and individual sectors of industries have known for a long time that this mandate on vaccines has been coming," he said.

"We've given people quite a number of weeks to make sure that the last few people that haven't been vaccinated have had the opportunity to."

What you need to know about coronavirus:The symptomsThe number of cases in AustraliaTracking Australia's vaccine rollout

Loading form…Posted 11 Nov 202111 Nov 2021Thu 11 Nov 2021 at 9:56pm, updated 11 Nov 202111 Nov 2021Thu 11 Nov 2021 at 9:58pmShareCopy linkFacebookTwitterArticle share optionsShare this onFacebookTwitterLinkedInSend this byEmailMessengerCopy linkWhatsApp


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